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  • Sam Wilson

Clearing the Cognitive Clutter

Updated: Apr 19, 2023

The brain has a pretty limited capacity to keep multiple ideas floating around in it at the same time. If we want to give our learners the best opportunity to learn what we’re trying to teach, we need to be aware of the cognitive load we’re creating.

Cognitive load theory explains how information is processed and sent to long-term memory (Sweller et al, 2019). It says that for any particular subject or concept, there is a certain amount of necessary baseline cognitive effort that is required to learn it. And for each learner, there is a limited amount of cognitive bandwidth that they can devote to learning at any one moment. Have you ever done this: you’re driving to a new place and as you get closer to your destination, you have to turn the radio down? That’s cognitive load theory in action. You’re clearing unnecessary distractions off your cognitive “desktop” to make room for things that matter. If we want to give our learners the best chance at success, we need to eliminate as much clutter as possible so they can focus on what matters.

Doing 3 things at once? I'm sure that won't end poorly. Credit: Sam Wilson

There are three factors in cognitive load

Intrinsic Load refers to how inherently demanding a subject is on our brain. It is a function of the subject and the learner. If the subject is particularly complex, it will have a higher intrinsic cognitive load, and demand more brain power from the learner. A topic will have a lower cognitive load for someone who is an expert at it, and it will have a higher cognitive load for a novice.

Extraneous Load refers to all the other things that a learning situation demands of the learner other than the intrinsic load to learn it. It is a function of the

design of the lesson and the learning environment. It includes all the distractions, the ways that information is presented, and the complexity of the practice activities (aside from the inherent difficulty of the task itself). Learning designers should reduce the extraneous load as much as possible.

Germane Load refers to the amount of cognitive resources devoted to the intrinsic load and not the extraneous load. Learning designers want to redistribute cognitive resources from distractions to useful applications. The more resources are devoted to the intrinsic stuff, and not the distractions, the more efficiently learners can retain information.

Learning designers can exercise the most control over extraneous load, so here are some suggestions on how to clear the clutter off your learners’ cognitive “desktop”.

Reduce the extraneous load

  • Design learning experiences with specific learners in mind (Meacham, 2022). Don’t design for everybody in one go. Novices need more help getting the basics down, whereas repeating stuff to experts who already know it can be distracting and gets in the way of new learning. If they are a mixed group make sure the learning is appropriate for everybody.

  • Simplify complex topics into easier, smaller pieces. When we are teaching a complex subject, the whole of which is too large for a learner to remember at once, we can break it into smaller bits and deliver the pieces in sequential order. Each piece should be small enough for the learner to retain and use, and this format gives us an opportunity to revisit prior information as we progress into more complexity and difficulty (Madigan, 2015).

  • Start by using “worked examples” that include the full solution (Sweller et al, 2019). Give learners a completed example of the task they need to do. Then give them a similar example with only one thing they need to do to complete it. Progressively add more complexity and difficulty. This will reduce the number of issues they have to solve on their own, keep them from getting overwhelmed, and will build confidence through repetition.

  • Avoid redundant information (Sweller et al, 2019). A learning designer may be tempted to place the same information in a graph, in a table next to the graph, and then narrate the information to the learners. Presenting information in such a completely redundant way is distracting and requires cognitive resources just to understand it is the same. Use mixed media that supports each other rather than repeat the same information.

  • Integrate all necessary information in one place (Fuhrman, 2017). If your learners need to access outside information, bring that information into your LMS or provide it in the e-learning activity. If they need to go to an outside website, make sure they open a new tab on their browser so they can easily get back to where they left off. Make accessing information as easy, and require as few clicks as possible.

With some thoughtful design we can turn an unnecessarily complex intervention into one that learners enjoy and can derive value from. It is too easy to build a learning environment that is the cognitive equivalent of a car ride with kids screaming in the back, someone spilling ice cream on the seat, and three songs playing at once. Nobody learns well in a chaotic environment. Let’s turn the radio down and give our learners the best possible opportunity to get where they need to go safely, quickly, and stress-free.


Fuhrman, J. (2017, June 6). Cognitive Load Theory: Helping Students' Learning Systems Function More Efficiently. The International Institute for Innovative Instruction.

Madigan, R. (2015). How memory works--and how to make it work for you. Guilford Publications.

Meacham, M. (2022, March 18). Cognitive Load and Virtual Learning Environments. ATD Blog.

Sweller, J., van Merriënboer, J.J.G. & Paas, F. (2019). Cognitive Architecture and Instructional Design: 20 Years Later. Educ Psychol Rev, 31, 261–292.

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image by Gerry Gaffney licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.


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